Lew Lorton Photography | What is Street Photography? - and what it isn't

What is Street Photography? - and what it isn't

May 24, 2013  •  4 Comments

Marriage - One Man = One Woman I was incited to write this post after looking through a great many 'street photo' forum posts and reading online discussions. What is street photography and why does so much of it seem to be empty images that have the superficial outside characteristics but are otherwise forgettable? 

(Let me warn the reader. This is what I think and how I shoot. You may not agree. OK. Do it any way you like.)



The first link in a web search was, of course, to the entry in Wikipedia which is correct in a general way but also so non-specific as to give not much help to any photographer itching to get into the field.

Street photography is a genre of photography that features subjects in candid situations within public places and does not necessitate the presence of a street or even the urban environment. 'Street' simply refers to a place where human activity can be seen, a place to observe and capture social interaction. The subject can even be absent of any people and can be that of object or environment where an object projects a human character or an environment is decidedly human.

Framing and timing are key aspects of the craft, with the aim of creating images at a decisive or poignant moment. Alternatively, the street photographer may seek a more prosaic depiction of the scene, as a form of social documentary.


There is a story about a man in a hot-air balloon who is blown off-course and lands in a field by the side of the road. He waves down a car and asks the driver where he is. The driver says, 'Well, of course, you're in the basket of a collapsed hot-air balloon by the side of the road.” The balloonist says you must be a photography teacher.” and the driver says, “yes, how did you know?” Well, the balloonist responses, “what you told me was absolutely correct but totally useless.”

So I looked further with a bit more success. In a website run by the London Festival of Photography, an organization that previously sponsored a yearly street photography:

Street photography captures people and places within the public domain. More specifically street photography is defined by LFPH as “un-posed, un-staged photography which captures, explores or questions contemporary society and the relationships between individuals and their surroundings.”


11-01-24life-_0796330 Pretty good but still a little undefined and without much useful direction – and the use of the term 'public domain' spurred comments from people who nonsensically wanted to define 'public domain' as if where the image was created is somehow important. It was interesting to see how some people wanted to impose silly standards like subjects can't be previously known to the photographer or subjects can't be looking at the camera or images can't be cropped in any way.








But finally, two quotes that actually strike closer to the heart of the issue.

Effective street photography is about telling a story in a single frame, not simply recording what was there at a particular time and in a specific place.



I didn't agree totally with this because of the use of 'story', implying there must be a narrative with a beginning and an end, so on I went.

Finally, I came across this quote from Ming Thein.

Street photography doesn’t always have to have a purpose, but each image must aim to say something.


Ming Thein right to the point. No rules, except that the image must say something. Bingo that's it. No rules, no standard, no 'best lens', no allowed procedures, just what the end result must be. The aim for any photographer is to create images that impact people with the shared human emotions and sensibilities.

teabag700__0795188 Unfortunately street photography has generally recognizable visual characteristics that are generally associated with that mode that it is relatively easy for viewers to see the superficial characteristics and fail to penetrate to the core.













So rather than saying what, in my opinion, is real street photography, it is much easier to say what I think is not.

  • Street photography is not pictures of poor people or people in distress that focuses on their condition and therefore borrows some emotion without bringing any new meaning. (what I call homeless porn. This is the most obvious, cheap and repellent cliché in street photography and viewers should not be fooled by the photographer's tales of giving money or food in return. Unless there is more to it than a picture of poverty, it is exploitative.
  • Street photography is not taking an otherwise meaningless shot, converting it to B&W and tarting it up with heavy textures and vignetting and grain. Because of the long history of pushing films to get higher iso and using not-so-terrific lenses on early small cameras, the genre is historically associated with B&W and texture. Modern photographers convert to B&W to keep bright colors from diverting the viewer from the center of interest that they want to show. Unfortunately that means that photographers can take relatively meaning-free images and pass them off as something important just by hanging the street photos characteristics on them.
  • Street photography is not any random B&W photography done outside. It may be 'slice of life' or just a well done but purposeless picture. If the picture has no point, it doesn't fit. Modern cameras do 98% of the work as it is, doing the exposure, doing the focus and not even costing anything to make exposures.
  • Street photography is not taking pictures of graffiti or signs or things meant to be seen with no additional meaning or emphasis added by the photographer. The photographer must add something more than a passing Google van.
  • Street photography is not jumping up in front of people and shooting their startled response. This 'method' seems to be the most admired by those people who haven't the nerve to go out and even shoot pictures of people at all. I find it, if not repellent and annoying, certainly irritating. The only positive aspect to this technique is that eventually people who shoot this way will annoy someone equally as aggressive and very annoyed and be will punched very hard in their nose.

This is my mantra, originally written by a retired street photographer friend from Scotland and slightly edited.

Street shooting is maybe the hardest niche of all in photography both to explain and to do. The photographer haunts his chosen environment where, perhaps, nothing is happening - people may be just quietly going about their business - and yet he/she to select tiny moments when an image can be snatched which is more than the sum of its parts - where some fleeting coincidence of expression, gesture, positioning, and movement come together to create an instant which holds some undefinable meaning.

Arizona Immigration rally--14 The difficulty in doing street photography comes in seeing the potential scene, framing it in your mind, getting to the right spot and capturing the moment. That means that the photographer must be perfectly at easy with their equipment, able to tame the wild camera and get the picture. This is just as hard as it seems. The keeper rate, not of focus or exposure, but of good shots is small.

The meaning or the idea can be big or little, it can be a statement about major issues or just a wordless comment on what the photographer sees but, in my mind, there has to be something beyond just a capture or the photo just empty. The meaning can be obscure and require some effort but it must mean something and the photographer must know it. The meaning must be enclosed in the photo and not an add on because the title is informative.

A great picture reaches past the topmost layer of intellectual meaning and touches feelings and emotions.

Henri Cartier Bresson said "To take a photograph is to align the head, the eye and the heart.”

What he meant and how I think, was that a photo must incorporate a meaning (the head), to do that it must present the vital elements for the viewer to understand in a coherent way (the eye) and the viewer must be struck by the photo and respond to it (the heart.)

And that's my goal, to strike to the heart.


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" (what I call homeless porn. This is the most obvious, cheap and repellent cliché in street photography and viewers should not be fooled by the photographer's tales of giving money or food in return. Unless there is more to it than a picture of poverty, it is exploitative."

It seems like all street photography could be exploitative if you don't get permission from the subject in advance.
Lew Lorton Photography
thanks to both of you leaving comments. Street Photography is surely a field with ambiguous edges and just as certainly an acquired taste.
Thanks for this post Lew, very helpful.
I agree with you that there are numerous possible interpretations of what's street photography, the name it self tells much about it. Streets are full of activity, people, colors, cars, buildings, dogs, everything possible. Some things catches the eye of some, other things the eye of other people, and most the eye of nobody.
Is it possible to apply general rules of photography on street photography? Yes. Is it mandatory? Depends on each one. Sometimes chaos puts the viewer easier inside the photographed place than a correct, sane shot. Is there always a story behind the photo? Well, depends mostly on the viewer, so usually there is more than one story (or even none). I think the most important is to shoot what has caught our attention, trying of course to make use of our photographic knowledge. Is it going to catch the attention of others the same way as it did to us? Most certainly not. In case they do in a certain extent, than one can eventually become a successful photographer, otherwise he can always keep having fun shooting ☺
It is possible that differing levels of skill in photographers coupled with each viewer's own prejudices leave the "correct" or "preferred" interpretation of an image to chance, and not a very sure one.
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